Lesson of London must be learnt

Updated: 2013-01-16 08:06

By Xinhua (China Daily)

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Despite China's ambitions and its efforts to build itself into a beautiful country, residents and travelers in Beijing have been subjected to excessively bad air quality in recent days.

For three consecutive days, up to Monday, Beijing was smothered in dense smog. The municipal environmental authorities said air pollution in the capital hit dangerous levels: readings for PM2.5, airborne particles measuring less than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, reached more than 700 micrograms per cubic meter at some monitoring stations, and as high as 993 micrograms at others, on Saturday evening.

The problem was not limited to Beijing. PM2.5 readings have been exceeding safe levels recently at more than half of the monitoring sites in Beijing and its neighboring Tianjin municipality and Hebei province, according to the China National Environmental Monitoring Center.

Some citizens joked that the smoggy weather provided a "romantic" atmosphere where "I can surely feel you, but cannot see you."

But people cannot really be happy about such a "breathtaking" phenomena, as health experts have warned that the polluted air will cause increased risks of respiratory and cardiovascular problems. Doctors with Beijing Chaoyang Hospital and Beijing Children's Hospital said the number of patients experiencing respiratory problems had jumped sharply in the past few days.

Also in jeopardy are the efforts of the Party and government authorities to advance ecological progress and their new promise to build a "beautiful China".

A country with a brown sky and hazardous air is obviously not beautiful.

Meteorological experts with the country's National Meteorological Station said relatively high humidity, low winds and a lack of cold fronts had contributed to the recent foggy weather in many parts of the country. However, experts believe that in addition to the unfavorable weather conditions, the roots of the smog are industrial emissions, vehicle exhausts and dust from construction sites.

For example, Beijing has a permanent population of around 20 million and some 5.2 million vehicles, with the number of private cars on the rise. Like many other built-up areas, the growth of its economy, population and energy demands has brought more pressure to its pollution control.

China has invested heavily in reducing polluting emissions in recent years. In 2011, it announced that it had met its major air and water pollution control targets for the country's 11th Five-Year Plan (2006-2010). It has pledged to cut energy consumption per unit of GDP by 16 percent while slashing carbon emissions by 17 percent in the five years to 2015. For the city of Beijing, it is aiming to cut emissions of major pollutants including sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and ammonia nitrogen, by 2 percent from levels recorded last year.

However, the prolonged smog these past days indicates that as China's industrialization and urbanization is moving ahead, the environmental situation facing the country will be increasingly challenging and counter-pollution control work will be arduous and require more vigorous, effective and scientific measures.

There is no reason to be too optimistic.

In addition to policies to curb the pollution sources, the bleak weather also tested the government's emergency response capabilities.

Beijing issued the city's first orange fog warning - the second most severe level in China's four-tier color-coded weather warning system - on Sunday morning due to decreased visibility. Similar measures were also launched in other cities.

However, some media reports claimed that most primary and secondary schools in Beijing were not informed by the authorities that they should stop students' outdoor activities, as is suggested in the emergency plan for serious pollution.

It should also be noted that curbing pollution and protecting the environment are not the government's exclusive obligations. Citizens ought to do their share, through approaches such as more frequent use of public transport.

The weekend smog in Beijing is reminiscent of the Great Smog of London in 1952, which was believed to have resulted in the premature deaths of at least 4,000 people, a heavy cost for prosperity in the industrialization progress.

But London is no longer the "city of fog," thanks to enhanced governmental regulations and public awareness.

China should learn from its experiences, but avoid duplicating its failure.